Rochelle family

Kaden Rochelle, 6, leads they way as his mother, Tracy Rochelle; brother, M.J. Rochelle, 9; and sister, Tatiana Seeser, 14 carry the tree they selected at Greenway Farms. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / December 15, 2011)

After first snagging a friendly employee of Greenway Farms to snap the family Christmas card photo in front of a shapely row of Norway spruces, Amy and Richard Pippenger devised a quick game plan for their hunt for the perfect tree.

Their dogs, Lola and Gus, would be handled by two of their kids, Emma and Sam. Richard would push their son, Jack, in a stroller, and Amy would document their holiday adventure with her camera.

With more than 15,000 specimens to choose from on 16 acres, no one has to look long or hard to find a great tree, said Mike Healey, 38, who runs his family's cut-your-own tree farm on Route 144 in Woodbine.

"But many people choose to make a day of it anyway," said the son of owners David and Marianne Healey, who also grow trees on a third of their 24-acre farm off Route 97 in nearby Cooksville.

While no snow blanketed the ground last weekend as it did a year ago on Dec. 10, images of the Griswolds trekking deep into the woods to cut a tree in the 1989 holiday film "Christmas Vacation" came to mind for some.

"We're more like the Griswolds than anyone knows," said Richard Pippenger, explaining he had to cut off the top of the family's tree last year to fit it in their living room.

But on a recent sunny Saturday, they, and other families like them, were looking forward to covering a lot of ground, literally, before reaching a consensus on "the one."

"It's all part of the Christmas experience," Mike Healey said.

Both of the Healeys' sites open for seasonal business the day after Thanksgiving, and this year the first two weekends were "weirdly warm," he said. It's been a 180-degree contrast to the messy weather that stunted business at this time last year, he noted.

While traffic has been steady, many of their customers have been purchasing a tree and, perhaps, a homegrown poinsettia — but little else, he said.

"People used to buy a lot of extra stuff, but the economy seems to have changed that somewhat," Healey said, noting there are wreaths, roping and tree paraphernalia for sale. "We live in such a good area [employment-wise] because of the federal government, but things are still more expensive to buy."

The sour economy has also driven some consumers to purchase artificial Christmas trees instead of live ones, to reuse multiple times, Healey speculated.

"But tree farms are built specifically for cutting trees down and replanting," he said, adding that Greenway Farms plants a couple of thousand trees each year.

Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture specialist with the county's economic authority, pointed out that there are only two active Christmas tree farms left in Howard County — the other is Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg. This is due in large part to the lure of selling off acreage for development in western Howard, she said.

But there's also a misdirected belief on the part of the consumer that buying an artificial tree is a "greener" way of decorating for the holiday, Zimmerman said.

"Since artificial trees don't break down and certainly never return to the earth, we're promoting the purchase of a real tree as the better way to go," she said.

"And people are turning to artificial trees because they have allergies, only to find something about [the manufacturing of] those trees is bothering them," she said. "Most artificial trees are made in China and have their own issues."

For those who still prefer not to kill a living thing, many tree farms also sell trees with the root ball intact for planting after the holiday, she said.

Back at the farm, Jesse Logan was securing a 7-foot blue spruce atop the family car as his wife, Betty, explained that they'd decorated a fake tree for a dozen years, up until three years ago.

"Our daughter-in-law told us we had to get a live tree," Betty said, and the Woodbine couple agreed. Now, Jesse said, they wouldn't go back to artificial.

"I like the smell of it too much," he explained.

Bumper stickers for sale that read, "Live Christmas trees make scents," get to the heart of the matter for many customers, Healey agreed.

Healey said his parents started out selling annuals and vegetables in the early 1970s but quickly decided they "needed something to do in the winter." They hit on the idea of growing evergreens for sale and using some space in their nine greenhouses to raise 1,600 poinsettias, which require attention from August to December.

Homegrown tree varieties for cutting include blue spruce, Norway spruce, Douglas fir and white pine. Customers can also choose between fresh-cut Fraser fir and Douglas fir trees that are shipped from North Carolina within three days of cutting.

Greenway Farms remains a "very family-oriented business," he said, with his sister-in-law, Kristen Healey, also pitching in at the Woodbine location. Workers there have grown to count on their returning customers, and when 35-year patrons don't show up, employees worry.

"These people are like family," she said. "They've seen me through two pregnancies, and we've watched their kids grow up, so we check up on them."

As heartwarming as that is, it's still a demanding business that coincides with a busy time of year personally, Mike Healy said last week, pointing out that he hadn't bought any gifts yet.

"Business will start tapering off around the 17th," he said, "and then I'll finally get the chance to go shopping."